HANG TIME PLAYOFF HEADQUARTERS — No Rajon Rondo. No Ray Allen. No Problem for the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics didn’t let their lingering issues, Rondo’s one-game suspension for bumping into a referee or Allen’s ankle injury slow them down last night in Atlanta.
It certainly helped that they had the “Tebowing” Truth, Paul Pierce, on their side. And it certainly helped that they had a willing dance partner in the Hawks, a team that’s almost always guaranteed to do exactly what they did last night (over the years, the Hawks have a made a habit of falling down when everything seems to be lined up for them to thrive) in losing home court advantage.
For all of the posturing that goes on and all of the moves coaches make in the course of a playoff series, sometimes the final result hangs on the answer to a simple question … whose will to win is greater?
That edge in this series belongs to the men in green and white, and one in particular.
Pierce showed last night that his is greater than anyone else’s in this series, and that includes the ultra-intense Kevin Garnett, Rondo, Allen, Celtics coach Doc Rivers, Hawks stars Joe Johnson and Josh Smith (who left the game with a sprained left patella tendon with four minutes to play) and anyone else you care to toss into the mix.
The Hawks led by 11 points with three minutes to play in the third quarter, a lead that we’ve learned in the past few days means next to nothing for a home team (ask the Grizzlies) and could not hold Pierce and the Celtics off.
Pierce was already on his way to a monster night by then, he finished with 36 points and 14 rebounds, but he saved his most critical work for the last 12 minutes. He outscored the Hawks by himself in the final 15 minutes of the game. Time after time he sliced through the heart of the Hawks’ defense for layups or found just enough of a crease on the wing to nail a jumper to help the Celtics take control.
With Pierce as their catalyst on one end and a smothering defensive effort on the other, the Hawks scored a grand total of six points in nine minutes — that’s an eternity in any game, but especially in a home playoff game where the crowed is essentially silenced.
More importantly, the Celtics have winning in tight spots in their DNA. They’ve spent this entire season playing shorthanded in one way or another. So to see Pierce, Garnett and a crew of seasoned pros (Keyon Dooling was huge) and wide-eyed youngsters (like the constantly improving Avery Bradley) who have learned the ways of the league under Rivers is what spelled doom for the Hawks, who might have to play without Smith in Game 3 Friday in Boston.
Dooling broke down the mindset of the Celtics perfectly, explaining to Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com how the machine works:
“We’re professionals,” Dooling said. “Throughout the season, we were in the rotation, out of the rotation, not playing that often. But you focus, you give yourself to the team, you never let yourself get out of shape, never let yourself get in a funk mentally, and stay in tune with the game plan and the schemes. Then when your number is called, you gotta be ready.”
Dooling played a bench-high 21:05, chipping in six of the 14 points the reserves would account for. But it was his uncharacteristically fiery defense — something not often seen during his regular-season minutes — that helped light a fire under his teammates.
Dooling had a little extra motivation as well: atoning for a teammate who had a somewhat unprofessional moment. Rondo missed Tuesday’s game while serving a one-game suspension for bumping a game official. It put the Celtics in a tough position after letting Game 1 slip away Sunday, but players rallied around the notion of winning for the player who wasn’t available Tuesday.
“We said it after the last game, we talked about maybe not having Rondo and being prepared for that moment,” Dooling said. “We did this for him tonight. This is a tribute to Rondo; we got his back.”
Rondo will be back for Game 3. Allen’s still a question mark. That home crowd in Boston will be cranked up and ready to go against a team they love giving the business in the playoffs (that epic 2008 series between the two teams is still fresh on the minds of the Celtics faithful).
Garnett, Dooling, Bradley and the rest of the Celtics’ rugged crew is guaranteed to be ready Friday night, the days of rest doing wonders for the elder members of the team.
As for the Truth … well, he’s already set the Celtics free!